Obituary: John Glenn

Reluctant space hero: First American to orbit Earth and oldest person to go into space


John Glenn, who became a symbol of the space age as the first American to orbit the Earth, then became a US Senator, has died, aged 95.

In just five hours on February 20th, 1962, Glenn joined a select roster of Americans whose feats have seized the country’s imagination and come to embody a moment in its history.

The Cold War had long stoked fears of nuclear destruction, and the Russians seemed to be winning the contest with their unsettling ascent into outer space. Two Russians, Yuri A Gagarin and Gherman S Titov, had already orbited Earth the year before, overshadowing the feats of two Americans, Alan B Shepard and Virgil I Grissom, who had been launched in separate missions only to the fringes of space.

What, people asked with rising urgency, had happened to the United States’ vaunted technology and can-do spirit?

The answer came when, after weeks of delays the rocket achieved liftoff. It was a short flight, just three orbits. But when Glenn was safely back, flashing the world a triumphant grin, doubts were replaced by a broad, new faith that the United States could indeed hold its own against the Soviet Union in the Cold War and might some day prevail.

No flier since Lindbergh had received such a cheering welcome. Bands played. People cried with relief and joy. Glenn was invited to the White House by President John F Kennedy and paraded up Broadway and across the land. A joint meeting of Congress stood and applauded vigorously as Glenn spoke at the Capitol.

Glenn was reluctant to talk about himself as a hero. “I figure I’m the same person who grew up in New Concord, Ohio, and went off through the years to participate in a lot of events of importance,” he said in an interview years later. “What got a lot of attention, I think, was the tenuous times we thought we were living in back in the Cold War. I don’t think it was about me. All this would have happened to anyone who happened to be selected for that flight.”

Glenn did not return to space for a long time. Kennedy thought him too valuable as a hero to risk losing in an accident. So Glenn resigned from the astronaut corps in 1964, became an executive in private industry and entered politics, serving four full terms as a Democratic senator from Ohio and in 1984 running unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Finally, 36 years after his Mercury flight, in the last months of his final Senate term, he got his wish for a return to orbit. Despite some criticism that his presence on the mission was a political payoff, a waste of money and of doubtful scientific merit, the hero of yesteryear brought out the crowds again, cheering out of nostalgia and enduring respect as he was launched aboard the space shuttle Discovery on October 29th, 1998. At 77, he became the oldest person to go into space.

In retirement from the Senate, Glenn lived with his wife of 73 years, Anna (he always called her Annie), in a suburb of Washington and their home in Columbus. Ohio State University is the repository of papers from his space and political careers.

John Herschel Glenn Jr was born in 1921, in Cambridge, Ohio, the only son of a railroad conductor who also owned a plumbing business, and the former Clara Sproat. A few years later, the Glenns moved to New Concord, Ohio.

“It was small but had a lot of patriotic feeling and parades on all the national holidays,” Glenn once said. “Wanting to do something for the country was just natural, growing up in a place like New Concord.”

Like almost everyone else there, the Glenns lived through the hard times of the Depression, instilling in their son a rigid moral code based on their own God-fearing example and saw him through an apple-pie boyhood. He played trumpet, sang in the church choir, washed cars for pocket money and worked as a lifeguard at a summer camp. In high school (now named after him), he was an honours student and lettered in football, basketball and tennis.

He still had time to court his high school sweetheart, Anna Margaret Castor, the doctor’s daughter. They married in April 1943, and he often called her “the real rock of the family.” From the time they came to public attention, and throughout the turbulence of spaceflight and politics, John and Anna Glenn each seemed the other’s centre of gravity.

Glenn began his journey to fame in the second World War. In 1939, he enrolled at Muskingum College in his hometown to study chemistry, but he took flying lessons on the side. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, he signed up for the Naval Aviation cadet programme and after pilot training opted to join the Marines. As a fighter pilot, he flew 59 combat missions in the Pacific, earning two distinguished flying crosses and other decorations.

Glenn saw more action in the Korean war, flying 90 combat missions and winning more medals. He put his life on the line again as a military test pilot in the early days of supersonic flight. In 1957, just months before the Soviet Union launched its first Sputnik satellite, he made the first transcontinental supersonic flight, piloting an F8U-1 Crusader from Los Angeles to New York in the record time of three hours 23 minutes 8.4 seconds.

Then, in 1959, newly promoted to lieutenant colonel, he heeded a call for test pilots to apply to be astronauts for the fledgling National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He and six other pilots were selected in April of that year. (The original Mercury 7 included Glenn, Shepard, Grissom, Walter Schirra, Gordon Cooper, Deke Slayton and Scott Carpenter. Glenn was the last surviving one.)

All seven men were eager, competitive and ambitious, but none more so than Glenn. Tom Miller, a retired Marine general and close friend since they were rookie pilots in the second World War, recalled that Glenn was so determined to be an astronaut that he applied weight to his head to compress his height down to the 5ft 11in maximum for the first astronauts. “He wasn’t going to miss a trick,” Miller said. “He’d be sitting down reading with a big bunch of books sitting on his head.”

But his determination did not win him the assignment to be the first US astronaut to fly. He had to wait out the suborbital flights by Shepard and Grissom in 1961 before his turn came.

The 1962 space mission came after two months of one postponement after another, sometimes for mechanical problems, often for bad weather.

On the 11th scheduled time, all was “go,” and the rocket lifted off from Pad 14 at Cape Canaveral. The flight stopped the nation in its tracks; people watched on black-and-white television, listened on the radio and prayed.

At the end of the first orbit, an automatic control mechanism failed, and Glenn took over manual control. He would see three sunsets in a brief time. He puzzled for a while about “fireflies” outside his window. Nasa later determined that it was his urine and sweat, which was being dumped overboard and turned to frozen crystals glowing in sunlight.

A faulty warning light signalled that the capsule heat shield, designed to protect it in the fiery descent back to Earth, had come loose and might come off during re-entry. The signal was erroneous, but no one could be sure. Ground controllers ordered that a retrorocket unit attached under the heat shield by metal straps not be jettisoned after firing in order to give added protection and reduce the risk of premature detachment of the heat shield. This was Glenn’s first real clue that something was amiss.

As Friendship 7 plunged through the atmosphere, the astronaut’s recorded heartbeat raced as one of the metal straps came loose and banged on the side of the capsule.

“Right away, I could see flaming chunks flying by the window, and I thought the heat shield might be falling apart,” he wrote after the flight. “This was a bad moment. But I knew that if that was really happening, it would all be over shortly, and there was nothing I could do about it.”

The capsule splashed down in the Atlantic off the Bahamas, where a US navy destroyer was waiting. Glenn radioed, “My condition is good, but that was a real fireball, boy.”

In the flush of fame, Glenn toured the country publicising the space programme, visiting aerospace plants and waving to cheering crowds and signing autographs. But he always had his eye on another flight into space.

He kept asking Nasa officials about a new flight assignment and was routinely stonewalled. Frustrated, Glenn resigned from Nasa in early 1964. But an idea for a new career had been planted in his mind.

One night in December 1962, attorney general Robert F Kennedy invited the Glenns to dinner at his home in McLean, Virginia. In the course of the evening, the attorney general suggested that Glenn run for public office. With the backing of a powerful Kennedy, he might have a good chance at a Senate seat from Ohio in the 1964 election.

Glenn eventually took the advice, but had to quit the race after being seriously injured in a bathroom fall. He spent the next decade working as an executive of the Royal Crown Cola Co. He still had the space itch, though, and inquired about a possible place on one of the Apollo missions to the moon, but Nasa gave him no encouragement.

After Robert Kennedy’s assassination in 1968, Glenn headed a bipartisan lobbying group called the Emergency Committee for Gun Control. President Lyndon B Johnson later signed the Gun Control Act of 1968, placing some restrictions on firearms.

In 1970, Glenn ran again for the Senate, but lost in the Democratic primary. Four years later, Glenn won the primary and breezed to victory in the general election, beginning a 24-year career in the Senate.

Over the years, Glenn earned the respect of Senate colleagues as an upright, candid and diligent legislator.

As a senator, Glenn developed an expertise in weapons systems, nuclear proliferation issues and most legislation related to technology and bureaucratic reform. He generally took moderate positions on most issues, though in his last two terms his voting record became more liberal. He was an enthusiastic supporter of President Bill Clinton.

The senator drew admiring audiences in his run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984, but his wooden speaking style and lack of a cogent campaign message were blamed for his poor showing at the polls. After losses in several states, he dropped out of the race.

As a member of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, Glenn developed the medical rationale used in arguing his case for a return flight in space. He offered himself as a human guinea pig in tests of the physiological effects of space weightlessness, like bone-mass loss and cardiovascular, muscular and immune system changes, and how they seem to be comparable to the usual effects of aging.

Glenn’s return to space in 1998 drew criticism. But his heroic image, and reawakened memories of the early space age, attracted launching crowds on a scale not seen since astronauts were flying to the moon.

Still healthy and vigorous, though not as agile as in 1962, Glenn embarked on his second venture in space, as he said in an interview, to show the world that the lives of older people need not be dictated by the calendar.

In one of the interviews at this time, he was reminded that Tom Wolfe, the author, had recently judged him “the last true national hero America has ever had.”

Glenn gave another of his dismissive aw-shucks responses: “I don’t think of myself that way,” he said. “I get up each day and have the same problems others have at my age. As for as trying to analyse all the attention I received, I will leave that to others.”

Glenn is survived by his wife Anna, two children, Carolyn Ann Glenn and John David Glenn; and two grandsons, Daniel and Zach Glenn.

– New York Times syndicate